By Charles S. Clark
June 13, 2011Vice President Biden on Monday announced the launch of a Campaign to Cut Government Waste, creating an oversight board modeled on the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which used a central website to track federal stimulus money.
The head of the new board will be former Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney, who has been chairing the Recovery Board.
Joined at a press conference in the Executive Office Building by Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew, Biden said, "The American people have lost confidence over the years in the ability of government to deliver" on spending money with minimal fraud and abuse. "The fundamental rationale for this campaign is to regain that public trust." It means requiring every agency to focus on "transparency and accountability" by putting the spending on websites to involve the public and create "hundreds of thousands of inspectors general," Lew said.
Also on Monday, the White House released details on the campaign to "hunt down and eliminate misspent funds" in the form of an executive order titled Delivering an Efficient, Effective and Accountable Government.
Building on what Biden called the "success story" of the Recovery Act's "unprecedented transparency to drive accountability and prevent fraud," the order signed Monday by President Obama creates the 11-member Oversight and Accountability Board to "replicate" the Recovery Board's work across government, using existing government employees. Working with Devaney will be agency inspectors general, chief financial officers or deputy secretaries, an official from the Office of Management and Budget, and other members the president may name.
The order commits each Cabinet member to track progress and report monthly during meetings with the vice president. It also requires chief operating and financial officers to report progress regularly to OMB.
In addition, the initiative will target duplicative federal websites, calling for an immediate halt to the creation of new sites and working with agencies to shut down 25 percent of some 2,000 sites over the next few months.
"We're going to hit every corner and track every dollar," Biden said, while "institutionalizing" the anti-waste campaign as "part of a new culture."
Republicans on Capitol Hill may be on roughly the same page. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who unveiled legislation to create a similar oversight board just hours before Biden's announcement, issued the following statement: "The American people have a right to know how their money is being spent. There is common ground and bipartisan support for legislation to increase transparency and openness in all federal spending because the problem we face is not a partisan one, it is a bureaucratic one," he said. "The bureaucracy is resistant to change."
Issa said he looks forward to working with the Obama administration to curb waste and improve transparency.
Federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients, in a conference call with reporters, said he had not had time to study the Issa bill. But he said, "The train that left the station two years ago with the president and the vice president driving it, which led to an unprecedented low level of fraud in spending under the Recovery Act, is headed, lots of people feel, in a good direction. We look forward to working with Issa and others in both houses of Congress to take the best practices from this earlier effort."
Though many Republicans argue that the 2009 stimulus package failed because the unemployment rate remains high, Lew praised it as a model for making the entire government more transparent and accountable. "When President Obama came in 2009, our two goals were stopping the economy's free-fall and changing how Washington does business, to make it more transparent and accountable," Lew said. That's why the president appointed Vice President Biden, who calls himself the new "sheriff" in the battle against waste, "because he has experience as a guardian of taxpayer's needs."
Lew and Biden detailed administration progress in reducing no-bid contracts, cutting improper payments and disposing of unneeded real estate. The same day the Campaign to Cut Government Waste was launched, the White House issued a new summary of the Accountable Government Initiative led over the past two years by Lew and Zients. It talks of cutting federal contracting for the first time in 13 years, identifying $3 billion in information technology savings and shutting down duplicative data centers.
Other potential efficiencies it cites are leveraging large-scale purchasing power in office supplies (which could save up to $200 million over the next four years) and pooling cellphone plans (which could save more than $180 million over six years.)
Biden on Monday credited Devaney as his "point man, without whom I don't think we would have accomplished all this to make government work better." He said Devaney's work tracking spending at the Recovery Board "set the standard for transparency and accountability and comes with a high bar." Of $480 billion spent on the stimulus, less than $3 million turned out to be fraud, Biden said. "It shifted the paradigm."
Biden expects the Campaign to Cut Government Waste will replicate governmentwide the "post-modern technology" and "sophisticated tools" that Devaney's Recovery Board set up to track funding, based on consultations with the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Department and the Homeland Security Department. Websites will allow local citizens to track each item of spending, explore whether designated projects are actually getting built and report any items that appear suspicious.
An example of the technology Biden noted was the time a monitor in the Recovery Board's "war room" went on Google maps and found that a stimulus money recipient who was said to be running five corporations was in fact operating out of a boat off the Florida Keys.
"I asked Earl when he discovers waste and fraud, that he tell me so I can announce it and help the public regain confidence," Biden said.
One apparent difference between the administration's plan and Issa's is that the board envisioned by the congressman would include a Senate-confirmed head. Members of Congress also would serve on a commission to fill vacancies on the board.
Under Issa's plan, a single new website would replace Recovery.gov and USAspending.gov, which tracks standard government spending. The information on the site would come both from the federal agencies that spend the money and from recipients of federal funds who will be required to report those receipts in a standardized form.
Both the Issa and Biden plans appear to draw from a proposal Devaney made in a not-yet-public memo he recently sent to Biden. Devaney described the proposal in an interview last week with the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News service.
Devaney is slated to testify about that plan before Issa's committee on Tuesday.
In promoting the campaign on Monday, Biden said that while the effort won't fully solve the federal debt problem, it is important to "change the attitude of how we do business in Washington. We plan to create the most transparent and efficient federal government in our lifetime."
Joseph Marks contributed to this story.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story mistakenly said Rep. Darrell Issa's proposed board would include members of Congress. Members of Congress would serve on a commission to fill vacancies on the board.
By Charles S. Clark
June 13, 2011